Do you remember Christmas morning as a child? I remember bursting with excitement waiting for gifts, while my dad got a cup of coffee. Chinese children feel that same excitement waiting for red envelopes on New Years Eve. What we call Chinese New Year is known as Spring Festival or 春节 in China. It is the most important holiday in China. Families return home to celebrate and hope for a prosperous new year, but as with Christmas, Chinese New Year has a darker side.
In Chinese mythology, a creature called the 年兽 or nián shòu comes out to eat people. The word nián shòu is often shortened to nián or year. The nián is afraid of three things: the color red, fire and loud noises. In the past, some villagers put red scrolls on the gate and lit fireworks at midnight to scare the nián away. The nián has never been seen again, but people continue the practice today.
Spring is upside down
Chinese New Year starts with the tradition of cleaning and organizing the home, both inside and out. People are letting go of the old in order to welcome the new. Once the house is clean, families shop for food, firecrackers, pastries and maybe 酒 or jiǔ.
Chinese families hang red scrolls or pieces of paper on the gate and doors. One of the scrolls is an announcement of the coming new year. Chinese people write the Chinese character, spring, on a red scroll and hang it upside down on the front gate. In Chinese, similar sounding words can add new meaning to a phrase. In this case, upside down sounds similar to arrive. Thus, by hanging the word spring upside down, Chinese people are announcing the arrival of Spring Festival or 春节.
Fish and chicken for a lucky and prosperous new year
For their New Years Eve dinner, people often eat fish, chicken and dumplings. Each of these foods have special meaning. Again, how the word sounds adds new meaning to the words fish and chicken. Fish or 鱼 sounds like the word for left over. People eat fish in hopes that they will have more than they need. Chicken or 鸡 sounds like the word for auspicious, and people eat chicken in hopes for luck in the new year. Families also eat dumplings or 饺子, which look like gold nuggets and represent wealth.
After dinner, parents give their children red envelopes or 红包 hong bao. There is a saying, 恭喜发财 or gōngxǐ fācái, which means Congratulations and get rich. The hope is for a prosperous new year. Chinese New Year or Spring Festival celebrations start this Wednesday. We wish you a happy and prosperous new year. How will you celebrate?